Photos to come soon...
Our last minute addition to our Ugandan itinerary paid off and we spent over an hour today with a large group of chimpanzees in the rain forest of Kibale National Park, outside the western Ugandan town of Fort Portal.
Yesterday we drove from Kisoro where we had based ourselves to see the gorillas. It was a long drive but took us through some amazing scenery. The south western part of Uganda has certainly taken us by surprise in terms of how beautiful it is. Our guide took us off the main road along a, well, I'll generously call it a track, next to a very picturesque lake. The steep sided hills covered in terraced gardens went straight down to the waters edge, and there were villages out in their canoes fishing as we drove past. We just had to hold on tight as the 4WD van bumped up and down, tilting precariously towards the impossibly steep slope down to the lake. We could admire the view when we weren't watching our knuckles turn white.
Once past the lake it was a relatively simple drive on to the town of Mbarara along paved roads. We
had lunch there before heading out north-west. We drove for a while through beautiful regions of rolling green hills dotted with farms growing bananas and potatoes and large fields of tea. Suddenly we rounded a corner on the side of a hill and were confronted with the view of the hills dropping abruptly away to a vast flat plain of savannah grassland. This was Queen Elizabeth National Park, which stretched from there westward to the Rwenzori Mountains on the border of the D.R. Congo.
We were able to do a very quick game drive on our way across the plain and saw lots of warthog (to Karens delight) as well as elephant, buffalo, water buck and the native Ugandan antelope, the Ugandan Kop. No lions, although we saw the remains of a buffalo that a lion had killed two weeks ago. Bones bleached by the sun. The rest of the drive was uneventful as we tried to get to Fort Portal before dark. This did take us past the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains which looked very spectacular, rising up to well over 3000 metres. It's amazing how short Mt Kozciousko sounds when you are regularly higher than it!
We got to Fort Portal at about 6.30 and because this part of the trip was done at the last minute we didn't have accommodation booked. The first place we stopped at, at our drivers recommendation, was full, despite his 'knowing the manager'! The hotel next door looked like a truck stop, so the driver took us to a guest house just off the main road. It looked very nice to Karen and I as our driver checked if there was room. The owner said it was full but that a group they had expected hadn't turned up yet. He called them and it turned out there had been a mix up with the booking. They weren't due in until next month! The owner is an Englishman called Morris, and after getting off the phone he called to his local assistant, 'Ramadan! Was that your booking?!? They're coming NEXT month!' It was a very Fawlty Towers moment, with Morris coming very close to Basil and Ramadan as Manuel. It's actually a very nice place to stay and after settling in we sat down to dinner around the table with the other guests and enjoyed wonderful food and interesting conversation. They also have some great looking little figurines of people on bikes, modeled after the locals here as they transport all sorts of goods and people on the very heavy, clunky Chinese made bikes that are everywhere in Africa. Look for some of these in our home when we are back!
So, you wanted to know about the chimps? Well fine then.
This morning we got up quite early and were on the road by 7 for the 1 hour drive out of town to the National park. We drove through more farmland and tea plantations, past hundreds of children in very clean and bright uniforms walking to school along the muddy road and eventually into the rainforest. We were greeted by a family of (yet more) baboons on the road, and the evidence of forest elephants having past that way. We soon arrived at the Ranger Station/Visitors centre and met Gerald who was to be our guide. We were grouped with a young American couple from Orange County and set off into the jungle. It was a bit different to the jungle in Rwanda; less undergrowth and more tall trees with widely branching canopy. We were on an established path to start with and after walking for 20 minutes in the direction the guide thought the family of chimps might be we started to hear the loud, raucous calls.
There are over 1000 chimps in the park, as well as countless other monkeys of about 6 different species, making it the highest concentration of primates anywhere in Africa. These chimps split into family groups, 2 of which are used for research purposes and 1 group for tourists to see. The chimps spend most of the day time in the trees, feeding off fruit and leaves and sleeping. They do swing between the branches of the trees to get to other things to eat, but if they want to move a long distance they descend to the ground and walk/lope along until they reach their destination, where they then climb back up into the canopy.
We spotted our first chimp high in the trees. Moving quickly off the path and into the forest, we stood with our necks craned trying desperately to see him. As we watched he started to make a hooting/screaming sound (I think you all know the sound they make). Suddenly from all around us, other chimpanzees answered the call. We were surrounded. The hooting and screaming continued to increase in volume as the group we were tracking with just looked at each other in amazement and apprehension. The rangers assured us that this was a normal call; something along the lines of 'I found fruit. It tastes good. Why don't you join me for breakfast?'. Kind of like a noisy primate SMS.
We spent the next 15 minutes spotting various chimps moving through the treetops in seach of the ultimate breakfast. This was usually a coconut type fruit which they ate half of and then dropped. The fruit would land with a resounding thud, causing those nearby to wish they had helmets. At one stage, one of these half eaten fruit landed right in front of my feet! I am sure that they were aiming at me.
As we moved along the path to get a better view we suddenly realised that we could hear the noise of movement of heavy footsteps through the undergrowth. A chimp was making its way along the ground and stopped within five metres of Karen and another girl. As they were watching it, they heard a noise from above and jumped out of the way just in time as a chimp decided it was toilet time. Their sudden movement startled the chimp on the ground, which then proceed to bolt past them. Such movement and the noises that they made, gave us the impression of strength and size. (Karen takes over the keyboard)
In showing evidence of sharing over 98% of human DNA, we spotted a male chimpanzee acting in a similar way to male humans. Basically, he sprawled on his back on the ground and proceeded to eat and scratched himself. The guide explained that this was meant to be a sign to female chimps that he was ready to mate. When will males learn that it takes a bit more effort to entice the females? Flowers, chocolates etc? Needless to say, this male got fed up with being ignored and loped off into the forest.
When a female and her juvenile offspring came down from their branches, we tracked them through a swampy part of the forest until they found a tree they thought would be a suitable place to sleep for the day. We watched them try to find a comfortable position and then laughed as the young one threw a whopper of a tantrum as he wanted to go back and play with the other chimps. With one eye warily on us, Mum, of course, said no!
Our time was soon up and we started the walk back to the visitors centre. As we walked we spotted several species of monkeys and butterflies. And I'm happy to report that I didn't spot a single spider. A true jungle paradise!
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